A Different Path Home

By Brett ElenaApril 19, 2022

It was a cold, gray Washington D.C. Sunday. October 28th, 2018. 0700. The damp pooled at my feet, leftover from the rain the day before; I glanced down, uneasy. Not 26 hours before, I had stepped off a 14-hour flight from Dubai. My body still wasn’t quite sure what time it was or where we were, and I flinched at the hordes of people around me, overwhelmed. Somewhere in the crowd, I knew, was my good friend Brit. My eyes searched the undulating waves of would-be runners, scanning the flashy warm-up gear, bright sneakers, and endless tights. The tree-lined avenues, so different from the recently-departed desert, loomed closer, tighter, taller. An announcer droned in the background, 100+ dB of sound that drowned into nothing. Individuals came close, and then they darted away, drawn to destinations unknown. I shivered.

Welcome to the 43rd Marine Corps Marathon (MCM).

Finally, Brit appeared, hair tied back, stretching complete. Eschewing formalities, we took our places at the start line and exchanged glances: “Now or never.”

Help me
It’s like the walls are caving in
Sometimes I feel like giving up
But I just can’t
It isn’t in my blood

Shawn Mendes’ song pounded in my ears, blocking out the anxiety, culture shock, and stress. It isn’t in my blood. I would not give up—not today, not ever. Despite the numerous obstacles (work hours, a desert-island home, time zones, a dubious training plan), it wasn’t in my blood to walk away. I would complete this challenge, regardless of the cost.

And I did.

The medal hangs on my wall even now, the proof hidden among the mundane—a silent testimony to an iron will that brooked no mercy, no room for error. If I held others to impossibly high standards, believe me, I held myself to higher. I worked over my soft, vulnerable beauty with ruthless abandon, training without compassion or rest, until I molded myself into my own legend. Unyielding, untouchable. Frail, brittle. And, with time—broken.

It is a cold, gray Portland Wednesday. January 5th, 2021. 1200. It is raining for the third day in a row; the endless clouds drift near sleet’s embrace, flirting.

My body is tired. On Saturday, I ran 50km across an icy trail, navigating a once-simple track with caution, sandals, and two simple poles. Much as I jest about the magical properties of a pom-pom, the truth rings clear:

My body needs rest.

Rest? Ha. The past four days have seen me swimming, lifting, and boxing. Fulfilling obligations, cleaning. Rest be damned; I had responsibilities to uphold.

After slowly, mindfully shepherding my pup Bon through the damp streets (“You can do it, little one! Not much farther! Don’t mind the rain—you got this!”), I drop her off at daycare. I return outside, heedless of my thin, MCM top. I crank up my music:

Help me
It’s like the walls are caving in
Sometimes I feel like giving up
But I just can’t
It isn’t in my blood

I cut through the neighborhood with purpose, crossing over to the stairway leading over the highway. Up one flight, a third, a fourth, dodging traffic: it isn’t in my blood. I WOULD conquer this elevation. I WOULD persevere. I AM strength, and I would take the next step, and the following, and the last, even as my right foot screams, and my left leg trembles.

The song changes:

Dear me,
This is a letter to the girl I used to be…
Dear me,
You’re going to take the long way home. 

Nichole Nordemann’s softer, kinder refrain wrecks my resolve. The grief, my faithful companion of eleven months, pounces. What was I doing?

The question haunts, even as I continue to push forward. Over Barbur Boulevard; follow the steep path to Terwilliger. Tears crowd my vision. Sorrow threatens. Knowledge of a too-early death, of beauty cut short, reframes my narrative. Truly, what was I doing: why was I abusing my body like this? For a schedule? For ego, for pride, for fear? Where was the line between admirable resolve and foolhardy persistence? Where was the delineation? Had I danced too near, darted too close? In my quest for achievement, for glory, for self-improvement—had I pushed too far?

My pounding steps time the metronome. “I don’t know how to offer myself mercy,” a familiar refrain chides. The words cut a well-worn path, following an oft-traveled groove. “I don’t know how.” It wasn’t how I was raised, wasn’t the tenor of my work. It isn’t in my blood.

The cityscape transforms into trail, and the mud swims underfoot. The rain continues, and my breath snags. I didn’t know mercy, couldn’t recognize compassion, but… but what if I did? What if I did know grace?

The rebuke lingers and settles. “Love is not a victory march… it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” That seems like AN answer, but I’m not sure it’s mine… my mind distances, watching my body’s reaction with contemplation, even I turn into the gym, seeking refuge in water. Was water the right thing? Was swimming? Was redemption present there, hiding in infinity, tucked between hydrogen and oxygen?

I wasn’t sure. Maybe.

But at least I was asking the question.

One week later…

It is a sunny, soft Portland Wednesday. January 12th, 2021. 1400.

The light stretches over the scene, limning each branch in benediction. I yawn, stretching after my nap. Before me, free from daycare’s clutches, Bon gambols across the park. I check my watch instinctively, out of habit, but I don’t really care—I’ve taken the afternoon off.

I wasn’t dying. It wasn’t a “break glass” emergency. I didn’t have big plans, important plans. I just wanted one afternoon—just one—to not multitask, optimize, and accomplish.

So I made it happen.

Later, we will jog gently through the branches.
Later, we will squirm through the river.
Later, we will drink hot cocoa.
Later, we will pause for popcorn.
I still have 2000 words to write, still have training plans, workouts, and expectations.
But today I chose rest. Today, I chose mercy, compassion, and simple joy.
And it’s enough.
Maybe I know a different path home after all.

You are not weak for wanting or needing support. If you’re seeking professional help, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].

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Comments (1)

  1. Anna

    Beautiful 💜

    Reply  |  
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